Ken Okuyama is not your typical car designer. He is one of the elite few to have given up a prestigious position at one of the world's most illustrious firms to spearhead the creation of his own brand. Just as fellow Art Center College of Design graduate Henrik Fisker, Okuyama decided to set up a company under his own name after working as Design Director and Chief Designer for General Motors, Porsche and Pininfarina.
Most recognized for the design of the Ferrari Enzo, Maserati Birdcage 75th and Ferrari P4/5 designed during his tenure as Creative Director at Pininfarina from 2004 to 2006, Okuyama also worked on the Maserati Quattroporte, Porsche Boxster and the C5 Corvette, and was Chief Designer for the Honda NSX. But he does not merely content himself with being a pivotal car designer having recently launched his own company, Ken Okuyama Cars. He is also known for numerous industrial design products and consultancy, modern furniture from his own Yamagata Koubou line (named after the Japanese town in which he was born) and the Ken Okuyama Eyes eyewear collection launched in 2007.
Following the unveiling of the carbon fiber and aluminum bodied K.O 7 and electrically-propelled K.O 8 at the Geneva Motor Show this year, Car Design News sat down in a Yamagata Koubou chair, rested a coffee cup on a Ken Okuyama-designed table and found out what makes him tick.
CDN: You've had a varied career since you graduated Art Center in 1986, what was your first job?
"I started working for GM in '86 for a little more than 10 years, then I worked at Porsche for two and Pininfarina starting in '95."
CDN: How did you like working in Detroit in the mid-80's?
"The job was fantastic - it was almost like working at Disneyland. But the place is terrible. It was right in the middle of Japan-bashing, so on the way to work you would see two or three Japanese cars burn, upside down. Not a good time."
CDN: Since then you've gone on to design some highly praised cars. What were some of your career highlights?
"Pininfarina was probably the highest point in my career, because I did four show cars and the Ferrari Enzo, Maserati Quattroporte and [Ferrari 612] Scaglietti. Show cars like the Rossa, Nautilus, Metrocubo. I worked on the latest Maserati [GranTurismo] coupe, the 599, I could keep going... But I am most proud of the Enzo and the Quattroporte. Two very different cars, but they are both me. When you look at it there is a lot of Enzo in here [referring to K.O 7] it came out naturally".
CDN: It seems like you're a bit sad to have left Pininfarina, seems you had a good time there.
"Yes, I had really had a great time there. But I promised to myself that I would be independent in 20 years when I became a car designer. So I had the clock ticking. I started my career in '86 and I became independent in 2006. So 20 years."
CDN: This new company that you've launched, Ken Okuyama Cars, is still in its infancy. What is the essence of its design language?
"I would say 'modern classic'. My philosophy is modern and simple, a timeless design. Like the furniture that I design. In any of the things that I do, I don't want those products to be around for two years and be thrown away. I don't do those things. I want those products to be around for longer than your life. It stays there even after you go. That's my idea of products. And these [Ken Okuyama glasses] are the same thing. It's basically forged titanium and very strong, and there's no welding."
CDN: So when you're creating all of these different designs - cars, furniture, eyewear - what creative stimuli do you value?
"The stimulation that I get the most is working for different industries in different environments and using different common sense. Integrating what I've learned in furniture into cars is really interesting. Also, I always learn from nature."